Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Descartes in love

Descartes is bugging me. In the second meditation, he argues that because he is able to perceive and judge that he perceives wax, this demonstrates (1) that he exists, and (2) that his knowledge of himself is more certain than his knowledge of the wax. Whether or not he perceives and judges the wax accurately, that he perceives and judges shows that he must be capable of so doing, and therefore, that his mind “exists.”

I understand the argument for (1) as a proof that subjectivity as such must be, in order for there to be experience, sensation, perception, judgment, etc. One could be deceived by absolutely everything that one encounters, but never be wrong in concluding that one has a subjective being, because otherwise, one could not be either wrong or right, about anything. This position opens the door to transcendental philosophy, and seems to me simply to be the correct position. I cannot fathom an alternative to the transcendental philosophical idea that there must be a subject for whom there are experiences, in order for us to make sense of any experience, or in order for us to understand anything about understanding or knowing.

But the argument for (2) is unclear. In Cress’ translation: “… if my perception of the wax seemed more distinct after it became known to me not only on account of sight or touch, but on account of many reasons, one has to admit how much more distinctly I am known to myself. For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my perception of the wax or of any other body that ails to make even more manifest the nature of my mind.” Descartes does not claim merely that he knows that his mind exists, but that he knows about it more than he knows about the wax, and this seems also to be the case regardless of whether he is deceived about his supposed perceptions of supposed external objects. Now, what exactly tells him this?

Let’s imagine that Descartes has badly misconstrued his experience, and that he is nothing other than a figment of the imagination of his notorious “evil genius.” The argument for (1) is that, if he can be deceived in this way, and if he can undergo being deceived, he must exist as, minimally, something that can be deceived: a mind. But the argument for (2) seems to me to say that he knows about himself more than about any of his experiences, on the basis of this same evidence. How can he know that he is not a figment of the evil genius’ imagination? What about his experience, his subjectivity, could tell him so?

This is the starting point of Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” image. Putnam proposed this as a challenge to the unity of mind and body: if we can imagine ourselves as properly hooked-up brains in vats, through which hookings-up these brains are fed what they interpret as “experiences” of wax, fires, copies of Descartes’ Meditations, or whatever, then we will have a hard time proving that our minds/brains are “in” our bodies.

But Putnam is not answering the more fundamental question, which is, what is the source of, the evidence for, and the basis of judgments about our self-knowing? Do we know our own minds?

One of my favorite approaches to this question is a very uncomfortable one. Every once in a while, we hear someone declare something like “I thought I was in love, but I was wrong.” Well, how about that?

Here you are, merrily going about your fawning and praising of this god in human form with whom you are thoroughly and terminally smitten, and then, one day, you awake to a different set of circumstances, a different alignment of stars perhaps, and realize that your undying love was in fact stillborn all along. How does that happen? Are you wrong about your judgment of the things—the person, that person’s charms, etc.—or are you wrong about yourself, about your judgment, about your own perceptions? What is the difference?

That we are capable of self-consciousness of our own subjectivity seems to me patent and undeniable. That we are capable of self-knowledge in any deep sense seems to me uncertain, at best.

Where does this leave old RenĂ©? Those of us who read this crapola know that he will use the self-knowledge idea in order to construct “certainty” a bit later on in the text. Uh oh.

I used to think I was in love with Descartes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

philosophy of mind -- yeah, right

I’m teaching Philosophy of Mind this semester. It’s odd that the philosophy department has a course called Philosophy of Mind. It’s throwing me for a bit of a loop, despite the fact that I’ve taught the course several times.

The phrase “philosophy of mind” connotes, at least to me, an analytical philosophy approach, which here means an approach that takes up philosophical “problems” to be “solved.” Among the problems in philosophy of mind are such matters as the “mind-body problem” and the “other minds problem.” The debates include whether “mind” can be reduced to physical brain events, whether we can have definitive proof that other minds exist, and so forth.

But the Cow State Santa Claus philosophy department is, and has been for many years, a continental philosophy department. Unlike analytical philosophy, continental philosophy emphasizes “questions” that elicit “answers,” but more importantly issue more questions.

The big difference between the analytical and continental approaches to philosophy is really this: analytical philosophy regards “mind” as a set of problems, and continental philosophy regards “mind” as a tradition of ideas dating to… Maybe Descartes? Maybe Parmenides?

That’s what’s driving me as I teach this thing. I don’t know what “Philosophy of Mind” is supposed to be. I believe I have a duty to provide my students some basic background in the debates about the analytical philosophical “problems,” because anyone looking at an undergrad transcript would think that’s what “Philosophy of Mind” would be about. But I’m also trying to undermine that containment, to question what I think is a broad petitio principii at the root of “Philosophy of Mind.”

In effect, I plan to teach a course in opposition to itself. I’m doomed.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

an old poem

Every so often something overtakes me and I try to write poetry, or, more accurately, something like the following happens. This is from about 12 years ago. It is about a life I left behind. I just re-read it and a few others from that period, and I think some of it is kinda okay. So, for what it's worth...

I’d tried a thousand ways 
to worry through life,
caught in the romantic 
allure of despair, bemoaning 
our Heehaw anxieties,
bad luck and gloom, the 
cartoon violence of drunks 
bouncing each other off 
the walls or searching 
for mermaids in the bay 
like Prufrock heroes.

But I gave up on the ghost 
at last, and tossed out spare 
skeletons to boot, and if I 
didn’t smile at least I felt it.

Not all those empty bottles lined 
up beside the sink belonged to me,
lest you forget; and you know 
the dirty plates aren’t mine; but if 
you insist we both spoiled the nest 
at least we worked together. I’ll 
cop to that, alright. And I’ll take 
some blame for wreckage, and 
that will surely make me smile.
I can’t be made to fret about it.

What’s fair, what’s deserved, what’s 
to be done, what’s to come - I used 
to believe in answers to these 
unlucky questions, but I was 
older then and felt the stakes 
driven further and further up. 
I’ve wised up to the risk.
Now I’m never certain and 
I’m certain that it’s best.

I’m not alone. I’m not weary.
I’m living off the dividends 
of misspent youth: pointless 
delight and days with no end,
careless concern and grave hope.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

consciousness, the imaginary, ideology, the real, sex and violence

Consciousness is a funny thing. Late modern and postmodern theories have attempted to establish, variously, that consciousness is an insignificant epiphenomenon of biochemical events in the nervous system, a technology of oppression and control through ideology, a grotesque product of the imaginary, a relatively self-aware if not entirely self-transparent absolute, or just the difference between what it’s like to be you versus what it’s like to be a goat.

As I start to gird the loins of my consciousness* in preparation for the Spring semester, Althusser’s theory of ideology and what I understand of Lacan’s account of the imaginary keep coming up. (In some ways, Althusser + Lacan = Baudrillard, but that’s another story.) Althusser says that ideology is how we represent to ourselves our imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. Lacan says something that to me suggests that the imaginary is how the subject of desire is constructed, so that we are able to live despite the occasional upsurge of the real. In both cases, ordinary everyday consciousness is at closest a couple removes from the real.

This bothers a lot of students. It has bothered me, but mainly because I didn’t get it. Recently I’ve realized that any time we encounter the real, our apparatus of imaginary relations, desires and fantasies, that is, “reality” as we live it, crashes down around us. The real is unbearable.

In fact, the real is unlivable for a sane person. The real is a huge pile of shit, mouldering garbage, the doom of civilization, your own personal doom, all the lies you’ve told, everyone you’ve ignored, everyone you’ve fallen in love with, and everyone you’ve hated. And they’re all having an orgy of sex and violence. 

Even that isn’t real enough to be the real, because I’ve imagined it (and I hope you have too, fair reader). 

What the hell am I doing writing this? Well, it’s like this…

I write always to someone. The someone changes, depending on the time or the writing. I believe I’m at my best when I have someone I write to for a while. (And yes, it’s you. You know who you are.) So this is a secret message to that someone, while also masquerading as a public message about how I am thinking about consciousness.

Now, you don’t want to know all that, or be thinking about it when you read this, probably. I certainly don’t. When I do think about it, the imaginary relation I have to the one I write to, and to writing, and to myself, starts to come undone, and the real situation begins to appear, and it is not pretty at all. 

This writing is an orgy of sex and violence. Read it again from the start if you don’t believe me.

Where was I? Ah yes, consciousness, ideology, and the imaginary. 

I’ll give you another example, one that is more embarrassing to me personally, but less to you. Whenever I play the guitar, a part of my consciousness becomes a rock star. It is essential for me to have this imaginary relation to the guitar to be able to play. (And of course, I play to someone.) Ideology is the set of beliefs through which I interpret this imaginary relation: what I mean by “rock star,” and how I theorize the cultural position of “rock star.”  

Without the imaginary, I’m just a doofus with imprecise and weak fingers, plunking along. That’s hardly tolerable, let alone an engaging way to spend a couple hours. 

We need the real, and ultimately cannot avoid it. But we can’t bear it. Consciousness is where this gets worked out, and that’s why we’re always so goddamn tired.

* Does consciousness have loins?